Written by John Oliver Santiago, VoiceWaves Youth Journalist.
On November 8, 2011, filmmakers Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin presented a screening of their award-winning film, Enemies of the People, to an audience at the Beach Auditorium of the California State University Long Beach. Both acting as co-directors and co-producers, Thet (Cambodians say their family names first) and Lemkin have created a documentary that humanizes Khmer Rouge perpetrators such as Nuon Chea (aka Brother Number Two), Thuon and Suon (footsoldiers for the Khmer Rouge), and Sister Em (a higher ranked commandant for Thuon and Suon’s region).
The documentary begins with a short introduction of the journey Sambath takes every weekend to get to the provinces. The filmmakers frame the movie by beginning with a short but intimate highlight of Sambath’s family, foreshadowing that his own personal investment in the project is driven not simply by the intrigue of history but more so by some deep and dear facet of his life—a reality faced by many Cambodians today. Not long into the movie, Thet Sambath reveals his family history: how his father was executed in the Killing Fields for questioning Khmer Rouge policies, how his mother was forced to marry one of the Khmer Rouge soldiers, and revealed much later on in the documentary how his brother was killed. But to properly accomplish his goals, Thet Sambath hid these facts from Nuon Chea—one of the key leaders of the regime that brought about the deaths of roughly a quarter of the Cambodian population from 1975 to 1979.
The documentary hints at two obvious goals. The first, and more controversial, goal is to humanize these former members of the Khmer Rouge. Starting with the footsoldiers, the documentary manages to capture the pain and regret that Thuon and Suon are going through. Living in shame, Thuon and Suon have retired to a life of farming alongside neighbors that know nothing of their past. In one of the more lighthearted scenes in the documentary, Thuon tells Sambath to be quiet and not speak as some monks walk past them.
Sambath and Lemkin chip away at the clout of the dark Cambodian jungles and military uniforms that took away Thuon and Suon’s identities, revealing their aged bodies frail with humanity. Without their guns, knives, and the camaraderie of terror, these footsoldiers are left to live in the shade of humanity riddled with guilt, shame, and horror. They are painfully aware of the horrors of their actions, their blood carrying years of death. They talk about eating the gall bladders of their victims. Suon illustrates to Sambath how he used to slit the necks of the victims by pulling their face back to stretch their necks and prevent them from shouting. From there, he slits or stabs their necks. The most unsettling thing about the scene, arguably one of the most graphic, was that the audience at Cal State laughed. And Suon, Sambath, and their companions did so also. They laughed in response to the discomfort and reluctance that Suon exhibited in illustrating this.
For Nuon Chea, he vehemently defended the policies they took. He stayed strong to the belief that what he and Pol Pot orchestrated was for the people. He stayed vigilant in defending his policies and instead argued that it was the Vietnamese that sabotaged the entire movement and made it a lot worse for the Cambodian people.
The second, and much more driving goal for Sambath, was to ask why. In the same way that Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky is slain by a boy that most feared it, Sambath had to face Nuon Chea—the thing closest to actually talking to Pol Pot himself. And once Nuon Chea finally found out about Sambath’s family, he choked up in tears to realize that the man that’s been befriending him and courting him for 3 years lost his family under the regime. But what’s most fascinating about the entire documentary is the idea of what Sambath is doing. For three years, he vigilantly pursued the trust of the man that arguably led to the destruction of his family. And for three years, he managed to befriend this man. And for three years, he sat on the same wooden chair across from the man who easily instituted the policy that led to the genocide of the Killing Fields.
Probably out of how English is taught in the country, Sambath’s English transcriptions and translations reminded me of old martial arts films—where the protagonist spoke with such courtesy and formality, even in the face of his most evil enemy. I don’t speak on behalf of Thet Sambath, but I can only imagine that the manners and honorifics is just his way of somehow coping with years of gross terror and death.